Toronto Star

Marking changes in the oilpatch

Journalist Chris Turner paints a nuanced portrait of the world’s most infamous fossil fuel reserves


For many, the promise of work in the Alberta oilsands held incontesta­ble appeal. Even in Manhattan, in 2010, as I was finishing a graduate degree in literature, the dream of big money for hard labour drove me to apply for jobs in Fort McMurray.

Conscious of escalating climate change — presently manifest, it seems, in storms battering the southern United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean — my hope for a place in the industry was checked, at first, by guilt. But money is a vicious motivator. With few better prospects, a mercenary year in the cold of the Patch began to seem romantic: leaving my books, I’d drop in, make fistfuls of cash and move on.

It was a common enough pattern. From 2001to 2006 — the wild years of the boom — nearly half a million Canadians moved to Alberta from other provinces. Careers bloomed in logistics, mechanical repair — even investigat­ive journalism, as evidenced by Calgary-based author Chris Turner, who establishe­d himself as one of the nation’s foremost writers on the energy industry. In his latest book, The Patch, Turner uses years of on-site observatio­n and interviews with those at every level of the operation, as well as its critics, to reveal a nuanced portrait of what has become among the world’s most infamous fossil fuel reserves.

When one learns how little the region contribute­s to worldwide oil production (a mere 3 per cent), and the progress engineers have made to reduce its carbon emissions, how the Patch became a focal point for global environmen­tal outrage — most recently reflected in protests to halt constructi­on of the Keystone XL pipeline — becomes one of the more fascinatin­g, complicate­d questions Turner answers.

By providing context through regional history, Albertan politics, and the technologi­cal breakthrou­ghs that made the socalled “liberation” of oil from bitumen a profitable endeavour, The Patch breaks from the scrum of industry boosters and celebrity-flashing environmen­talists to provide an accessible, balanced perspectiv­e on what Turner describes as “one of the most colossally scaled engineerin­g projects in human history.”

Is there an alternativ­e to the midcentury “church of High-Modernism” that realized that project — and led to present fears? Turner believes so. There exists a “competing definition of progress,” he writes, which envisions a future without dependence on fossil fuels. Yet one senses deep skepticism about Turner’s faith in humanity to overcome the paradigm of “technologi­cal progress and engineerin­g prowess” that presses unsustaina­ble developmen­t onward.

As gas spikes ripple across Ontario and floodwater­s recede in Bangladesh, The Patch reminds us that there are no clear enemies — only a system in which we’re all, to some degree, complicit. As for my grasp at oil money? It never came about. By 2010, Fort McMurray was well into the “$50-(per barrel) doldrums,” where it stagnates today; jobs are harder to come by. Now seemingly past its years of “perpetual growth . . . and agitation,” it’s difficult to know the course of Alberta’s future. For Turner, though, one thing is clear: change is coming. Grant Munroe’s writing has appeared in the Walrus, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere.

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